Thomas Klikauer, Norman Simms – The Madness and Malady of Management Studies

David Graeber wrote about “Bullshit Jobs”. Maybe the are also “Bullshit University Disciplines”

Thomas Klikauer is the author of 560 publications and writes on Managerialism.

Norman Simms is a retired academic who lives in New Zealand and continues to write articles and books, as well as editing an online journal.

Cross-posted from Counterpunch

More than one-hundred years ago, Henri Fayol’s highly militaristic if not authoritarian Fourteen Principles of Management – division of work, authority, discipline, unity of command, esprit de corps, etc. – moved factory administration closer to identify what management actually is.

More than Fayol, it was the snake oil salesman Frederick Taylor who shaped our perception of management. To further legitimise an administration’s rule over workers, une idée fixe of Management Studies became a handy ideology backing anti-democratic authoritarianism, at least academically. Management gained even more legitimacy as the crypto-scholarly subject of Management Studies became part of business schools associated with universities.

With that, Management Studies conjured up the hallucination of being similar to real academic subjects like geology, mathematics, philosophy and sociology. Much of this occurred even though many believe that most management research is rubbish. Others say it simply is bullshit, as Spicer writes in his Business Bullshit.

Perhaps worse than being rubbish and bullshit is being called irrelevant. A very quick check shows how inapt almost all of what Management Studies produces actually is. For example, by 2015 there were 115,000 papers in management published since 1990 – the year Bill McKibben published his seminal work on The End of Nature. Only 328 or a whopping 0.28% were concerned with climate change. In other words, for Management Studies “the” issue of the 21st century plays no role at all. Furthermore, out of the 222,500 papers in management, business and finance just 292 were concerned with the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), in percentage terms: 0.13%. In other words, Management Studies missed the boat big time, while publishing itself into irrelevance.

There is simply no better way to show your own insignificance than having 0.28% and 0.13% of your papers published on the two most relevant issues of the last decades, the GFC and global warming. In short, most publications in Management Studies have little or no impact. To camouflage its own cluelessness, Management Studies follows the ideology of impact factor introduced and strictly enforced by university managers and its apparatchiks.

But that is only the start of a journey into the failure, incompetence and pathologies of Management Studies. In 2010, Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy published a paper that asserts that a person can, by assuming two simple 1-min poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful. With such a supposedly mind-shifting conclusion, TED talks were assured and so were appearances in The New York Times, which treated her like a Hollywood movie star. Of course, she had a book with glowing reviews on Amazon’s website. There is only one slight problem. The study that led to all this exposure was replicated by another team of researchers with a sample five times bigger than the original. It did not find any of the effects that had been claimed. Conclusion: Cuddy’s work is nothing but fraud, deceptions and meaningless research.

Yet such an appeal to the media is spiced up or better sexed up as Tony Blair would say with the latest sensational discoveries can enormously advance academic careers. Another person who sexed up his findings and career long before the term sexed up was invented was none other than Management Studies’ greatest proponent, Frederick W. Taylor. Even today, Taylor is revered inside Management Studies because he reduced workers to the status of mechanical body parts. On workers, Taylor’s leading ideas are that a worker should have the mental make-up of an ox and that he is so stupid that the word percentage has no meaning to him. This may no longer openly mirror what Management Studies thinks about workers (the Big Bosses have learned to be more subtle and devious) but it testifies to an underlying ideology set in motion by Taylor and still prevalent in sections of Management Studies.

An even closer examination of the self-appointed inventor of management reveals that the snake oil salesman Taylor was more fiction than fact producing little more than falsifications. Despite of all this, Taylor became famous. By early 2021 Google-Scholar listed 174,000 hits on “Frederick Taylor Scientific Management”. Taylor’s book on Scientific Management presents little more than a scientific process known by experts as conjuring figures out of thin air. Again the master of pseudo-academic bullshit set up a still reoccurring theme in Management Studies.

Overall the guru of scientific management had a footloose relationship with facts setting the tone for that was to come in Management Studies. And just in case you wonder why management gurus are called gurus? It is because, as Peter Drucker once said, some management academics can’t spell the word charlatan. Next in line of succession and similarly revered is Elton Mayo and his Hawthorne experiment. In 1928 and 1929 he spent a total of six days at the site of the experiment.

During the experiment, disconfirming data were discarded. In other words, torture the facts until they confess. This and other things the great Mayo did in violation of the most elementary experimental protocols. Well, in the end a stunningly selective use of data got him what he wanted – fame and fortune. Later on, Mayo and his colleagues kept their data to themselves for many years – for good reasons.

Overall however, like Frederick Taylor, Elton Mayo had a creative relationship to empirical evidence to put it politely. What became relevant to Management Studies wasn’t scientific endeavour but grand-standing claims – a circus show. Not surprisingly, in many business schools, no more than lip service is paid to the needs for research. Whether with faulty research or without any, many Management Studies articles only purvey the blindingly obvious. As a consequence, more and more articles are involved in the micro-analysis of obscure aspects of firm or management performance while deliberately excluding the most relevant moral, political and social issues of our time.

Rapidly Diminishing Relevance

One management academic openly admitted, increasingly, it seems, we write for ourselves and the micro-tribes with which we most closely identify and we have had a proliferation of quack remedies masquerading as best practice. InManagement Studies in Crisis – Fraud, Deception and Meaningless Research”, Dennis Tourish says, the production of useless knowledge resembles astrology more than astronomy. Undeterred by the futility of it all, much of this rubbish informs the teaching of Management Studies (BAs, MBAs, PhDs) – all pushing a rather one-sided view of the world of work – the world of management, corporate leaders, CEOs and corporations.

Not uncommonly, however, most of the so-called research that Management Studies produces reflects this bias. For example, it is not rare to find that references in an article or a PhD dissertation in Management Studies has up to 60% of its quotes coming from senior management; 25% came from other managers; one single quote from an employee, two from customers and 23 or 12.5% from other voices. Adhering the corporate line, of course, virtually assures that business schools academics become paid advocates for corporate causes – guns for hire – rather than searchers for truth. The one-dimensional focus on companies and corporations in support of corporate capitalism creates, at least partly, four problems for Management Studies, which thus

1. ignores pressing problems like global warming;
2. fails to reach a broad audience;
3. writes only for each other; and
4. sees its own relevance almost exclusively in terms of how it can serve one organisational constituency (management).

Even the – of course, always – “departing” editor-in-chief [read: main gatekeeper] of one of managements most influential journals, Organization Studies, bemoaned the lack of political and social relevance of much research conducted in the field. It is, he averred, publishing for its own sake leading to more and more published research. The publishing game in Management Studies revolves about quantity, not quality. Hence, it shows four general pathologies:

1) articles published regularly produce nonsense;
2) articles are poorly written;
3) articles are long-winded; and finally;
4) articles have little or no appeal to the public.

This is supported by une idée fixe that publishing comes to be seen as a game conducted to increase rankings, crucial for the fashioning of academic careers but all of this is devoid of intrinsic meaning and value. Much of this moreover is turbo-charge by university apparatchiks pushing a growing obsession with measuring, monitoring, auditing and ranking universities, business schools, journals and individual papers. Almost self-evidently, the growth of auditing can lead to a decline of organisational trust which is something of little concern to the university Munchkins of Managerialism. Just as the defensive strategies of blamism – always blame others for your failures.

Worse, as managerial power has increased, so has the temptation to resort to crude, bullying and toxic forms of control next to churning out ever-increasing quantities of publications often with the sole purpose of bing evaluated, graded and forgotten in time for the next round of research assessment. Beyond that, business schools that want to inflate the ranking of their MBA programmes routinely encourage their faculty to prioritise publications in journals listed in the Financial Times top fifty. Yet the ultimate key to understanding all this is something else entirely. The system of numerical quantification allows: University managers to evaluate the quality of a paper without having to undertake the tiresome job of reading it.

Two further aspects should be kept in mind on this. First, the word “quality” in is rather vague and doubtful. It might indicate popularity, signifying a beauty pageant. But it does not necessarily indicate quality. Second, the real problem for managers – who have now mutated into apparatchiks in the neoliberal university – is not that they no longer have to read it. But eve n if they do glance at the published articles, they do not have to understand what they say.

For the academics, much of this processing by gobbledegook means conforming to the political game of publishing in the “right” (the top four US) journals. Virtually any academic in a business school can rattle off the names of those periodicals considered to be “top journals” while not being able to tell you what “top” actually means beyond being listed on some dodgy ranking site.

Overseen, monitored and strictly applied by university apparatchiks, the career engineering PhD students and later academics drive towards is factor fetishism and this irrational bundle of beliefs has now started to shape research programmes, grant applications and PhDs topics. Today, selecting a PhD topic means going with the flavour of the month so that one gets published in a handful of top journals. Some people might call all this a “game”. Others might call it corruption. That all this corrupt scholarly engagement is of no concern to university apparatchiks.

Yet the one-dimensional focus on publications in a select few journals has other, perhaps intended consequences. Today, books have come to be regarded as Regalmüll – that is, shelf trash. Not only have academic publishers started to shift their publishing programme towards non-academic fields but great books are increasingly less often written and published. What are the great books that shaped modern humanity? Management studies is destined never to produces something like The Origin of Species, Critique of Pure Reason, Das Kapital, The Second Sex, A Brief History of Time, etc.

All of these titles (and a few hundred more) are harder and harder to find inside and outside of the neoliberal university. What counts today is the standard 7,500-word article strictly following the mind-numbing and dreary formula of “Introduction, Theory, Method, Findings, Conclusion”. This robotic stuff reminds one of the Czech playwright Karol Čapek’s robota – forced labour. Rafts of robot-articles are published in obscurantist journals that are rated highly and read by virtually nobody outside a small circle of academics. As pushed by Management Studies, this is what impact factor fetishism means in its final consequence. Humanity goes into the dustbin of history. It is sacrificed on the altar of Managerialism.

BRAVE NEW EUROPE is an educational platform for economics, politics, and climate change that brings authors at the cutting edge of progressive thought together with activists and others with articles like this. If you would like to support our work and want to see more writing free of state or corporate media bias and free of charge, please donate here.

1 Comment

  1. anyone who allows his profile to advertise that he is an author of 560 publications will forgive me if I merely skim his piece and find it confirms mt expectations – viz it’s no more than a self-satisfied moan and contains not a hint of what we can do to counter the all-embracing managerialism. I’ve glanced at the final chapter of your 2013 book “Managerialism – a critique” (all 11 pages) and noted the book’s 950 footnotes and didn’t emerge all the wiser.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.